(AP) - Lebanese troops, tanks and armored vehicles began deploying south of the strategic Litani River early Thursday after the Israeli army stepped up its withdrawal from the region and handed over some of its positions to U.N. peacekeepers.
The rapid developments aimed at ending 34 days of fighting came after Lebanon's government agreed Wednesday to deploy troops near Israel's border for the first time in 40 years, reports Trend.
Ten armored carriers mounted on flatbed trucks drove across a newly installed bridge over the Litani at its mouth on the Mediterranean coastline, about 18 miles north of the Israeli border.
Trucks and jeeps mounted with Lebanese flags also carried soldiers south toward the port city of Tyre. Troops were expected to be brought in by sea to the Tyre port later in the deployment.
Further south, flatbed trucks carrying 20 tanks arrived in Marjayoun, a key town near the Israeli border that was briefly occupied by Israeli forces during their incursion into Lebanon. They were accompanied by a dozen trucks loaded with troops and hoisting Lebanese flags.
The army deployment will continue for a few days "to spread Lebanese government authority over all Lebanese territory, including south of the Litani River," a senior military official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Lebanese army has been preparing troops for the past few days. The U.N. cease-fire plan calls for the force to reach 15,000 and to be joined eventually by an equal number of international peacekeepers to patrol the region between the Israeli border and the Litani River.
But the Lebanese government said soldiers would not "chase" or "take revenge" on Hezbollah guerrillas in a bid to disarm the fighters who fiercely resisted the Israeli invasion.
"The will be no confrontation between the army and brothers in Hezbollah," said Information Minister Ghazi Aridi after the two-hour Cabinet meeting Wednesday. "That is not the army's mission. ... They are not going to chase or, God forbid, exact revenge (on Hezbollah)."
Meanwhile, the Israeli military began handing over positions to the United Nations early Thursday. The army said more than half the area Israel held in Lebanon had been transferred over to U.N. peacekeeping forces, adding the process would occur in stages and depend on a stronger U.N. force as well as "the ability of the Lebanese army to take effective control of the area."
The army said it was the first time it had handed over territory to the United Nations, although it had redeployed some of its forces previously.
By Thursday morning, all Israeli reservists had left Lebanon and only regular troops were still patrolling there, Israel TV's Channel Two reported. The Israeli military could not immediately confirm the report, but said the plan was for all reservists to be out of Lebanon very soon.
Before dawn, several hundred Israeli soldiers crossed back over the border into Israel. Some smiled, sang and rejoiced, while others just looked relieved to be out. One soldier sat down and cried, his head buried in his arms, after reaching Israel again.
Many said they had little faith that UNIFIL and the Lebanese army would be able to rein in Hezbollah. "I ... hope so, but if we have to come back we'll come back and we'll do it again," said John Braun, a military doctor.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said completion of the Israeli pullout depended on the presence of both the Lebanese army and an international force. She also said she wanted the international force to help monitor the border to prevent Iran and Syria from replenishing Hezbollah's weapons.
"If there is a place that Israel can withdraw from and the Lebanese army can come, plus international forces, we'll do it," Livni said after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York. "But if it takes time until the international forces are organized, it takes time until Israel withdraws. This is the equation."
Israel had as many as 30,000 troops in southern Lebanon during the conflict that began July 12 when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the Israeli chief of staff, said earlier Wednesday that Israeli soldiers would stay in southern Lebanon for months, if necessary.
In a nationally televised address, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Lebanon had the right to take charge of its destiny and warned of foreign meddling that has turned the country into a battleground for Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Iranians over the decades.
"I am not hiding from you that complacency regarding this right would expose our country to becoming once again an arena for regional and international disputes," he said.
Despite continued division over disarming Hezbollah, the Cabinet decision to deploy Lebanese troops was a major step toward meeting demands that the guerrillas be removed from Israel's northern frontier. It would also mark the extension of government sovereignty over the whole country for the first time since 1969, when the Lebanese government sanctioned Palestinian cross-border attacks on Israel.
The Lebanese government, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, met for the first time since the cease-fire took hold Monday, after two postponements because of divisions over Hezbollah's arms. The guerrillas, who insist they have the right to defend Lebanon, have resisted pressure to give them up or even withdraw them from the border area.
Aridi stressed that there will be no authority or weapons in south Lebanon other than those of the state. "If any weapon is found, even the brothers in Hezbollah have said 'Let it be in the hands of the army. No problem,'" he said.
Hezbollah's top official in south Lebanon hinted that the guerrillas would not disarm or withdraw but would keep its weapons out of sight. Hezbollah will have "no visible military presence," Sheik Nabil Kaouk told reporters in the southern port city of Tyre.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev did not address a question about his government's response to the lack of action on Hezbollah arms.
"Israel supports the full and expeditious implementation of (Security Council Resolution) 1701 and calls on the Lebanese side to do its utmost to implement the resolution in full," he said when queried about the Lebanese government decision.
The Lebanese death toll, meanwhile, rose to 842 when rescue workers pulled 32 bodies from the rubble in the southern town of Srifa, target of some of Israel's heaviest bombardment in the 34-day conflict. The figure was assembled from reports by security and police officials, doctors, civil defense workers, morgue attendants and the military.
The Israeli toll was 157, including 118 soldiers, according to its military and government.
Foreign diplomats worked to assemble the international force that will augment the current 2,000-member U.N. peacekeepers, known as UNIFIL, who have been in the area for more than two decades. The U.N. hopes 3,500 international troops can reinforce the contingent already on the ground within 10 to 15 days, Assistant U.N. Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi said.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said France is willing to lead the enlarged U.N. force until at least February.